Employee vs contractor – IP implications

Computerworld reports on an employment dispute involving a web developer:

The case, heard by the Employment Relations Authority late last year, hinged on whether Michael Oliver, who did development work for Palmerston North firm Autoweb Solutions, was an employee or a contractor. The Authority determined he was an employee.

The employee/contractor distinction is an important one, and has been the source of a number of court disputes. While the Autoweb case was simply a wage dispute, the employee/contractor distinction could also potentially have intellectual property implications.

The default position under section 21 of the Copyright Act is that (most) copyrightable works created by an employee “in the course” of employment – e.g. software – are owned by the employer (whether or not the employee is actually paid). This is not the case if the person creating the work is a contractor. In that case, the so-called commissioning rule applies (see Copyright ownership and software development). If a developer had been “hired” (as an employee or contractor) to write some specific code, then the employer/hirer will likely have commissioned the work and will therefore own in.

But the situation could easily become more murky, with the possible result that a non-employee developer owns copyright in code they produced for their principal (though not in a “commissioning” situation) – for an example, see “Free design” and the commissioning rule. This cuts both ways: contractors should be careful not to be deemed employees in order to avoid the risk of IP created in the course of a project being inadvertently owned by their “employer”. Note that the words “in the course” are important, as discussed in the recent ERA case of Abbott v Chief Executive, Whitireia Polytechnic [2010] NZERA 766.

As is often the case, a proper contract is the answer – though as the Autoweb case makes clear, it is the substance of the relationship not the labeling of it that is determinative. In the case of employees, it is a legal requirement that there be a written employment contract. Contracts with contractors should clearly state which party retains any resulting IP.

“Free design” and the commissioning rule

A recent copyright case gives an interesting ruling from the Court of Appeal on the commissioning rule. The case, Oraka Technologies Limited v Geostel Vision Limited [2010] NZCA 232, involved a dispute over the ownership of industrial drawings.

In short, a customer had engaged an engineering firm to produce designs for an industrial machine. Unfortunately the terms of the engagement were unclear, and a dispute arose (some years later) between the customer and the engineering firm as to who actually owned the designs. The customer claimed that because it had commissioned those works, and provided an implied agreement to pay for them, and the designs were made pursuant to that commission, it (the customer) owned the copyright, by virtue of the commissioning rule. The engineering firm denied there had been a commissioning as defined in the Copyright Act, and that it therefore remained the owner of the designs.

The Court noted the orthodox position that:

Whether a work is “commissioned”; what the scope of that commission is; and the date on which the commission arises are all necessarily questions of fact in each case.

And it offered the following sage advice:

Patently, the better practice is to have a written agreement, and software developers and purchasers would be well advised to see that sound industry contracting procedures are put in place.

The critical issue was whether or not the customer had agreed to pay for the works – a requirement of the commissioning rule. Normally, payment (or an agreement to pay) is not in question, but was complicated in this case by the engineering firm claiming that it had provided a “free design service” in order to attract new customers. Because the designs had been provided for free, it claimed, the customer had not agreed to pay for the work and there could not have been a “commissioning” as defined in the Copyright Act.

The Court of Appeal rejected the engineering firm’s argument (which had been accepted in the High Court). It said that the engineering firm had offered “free design” on the basis that it would get to do the subsequent manufacturing work (which wasn’t free), and this was sufficient to create an intended-to-pay commissioning. The Court said it was “everyday commercial sense” that such an arrangement would be regarded as two parts of the same deal, and the customer had “agreed to pay” for the design work as part of the overall design-and-manufacture arrangement. It would be artificial to divide the “free design” and the subsequent intended manufacturing into two separate transactions. The Court therefore ruled that the copyright in the works was owned by the customer.

This is a useful case that demonstrates a pragmatic and commercially realistic substance-over-form approach to what was a murky factual situation. But, as the Court noted, these very costly disputes are easily avoidable by having a simple, appropriate agreement in place.

Copyright ownership and software development

New Zealand’s copyright laws contain an important feature known as the “commissioning rule”. Software developers – whose stock in trade is intellectual property – need to beware of this rule.

Note: the Government is proposing to repeal this rule. As of April 2009, the amending Bill (carried over from the previous Labour-led Government)  sits at number 18 on the Government’s Order Paper (right after the Dog Control Amendment Bill), so the rule may not be repealed for some time.

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